Nurturing Essential Skills in Early Learners: A Play-Based, Child-Led Approach

Approaches to learning looks at how children acquire knowledge and skills. It includes the set of skills sometimes referred to as ‘critical thinking’ or ‘executive function’. Having a positive attitude towards learning is essential for children to engage with school and succeed in life as adults.

From infancy through the early primary grades, children approach learning in different ways. They bring unique temperaments, habits, and preferences to how they explore, discover, and draw conclusions about the world and the people in it.

Curiosity and initiative taking

Children from birth show their eagerness to learn by choosing to participate in activities that they find interesting and personally meaningful.

An innate drive to examine objects, ask questions, and experiment with cause and effect lays the foundation for scientific inquiry and problem-solving.

They explore their environments through their senses, movement, play, and social interactions. That is where active play-based learning comes in. Teachers facilitate and nurture that curiosity.

For example – Luke, age 4, was playing outdoors when he spotted an ant hill. He crouched down and watched the ants scurrying around for a few minutes. “They’re so busy!” he remarked. Luke then grabbed a stick and poked it into different areas of the anthill to see how the ants reacted. The ants swarmed around the stick, some crawling onto it. “Why are they crawling on my stick?” Luke asked the teacher. Not waiting for an answer, Luke then said “I’m going to move some over here and see what they do.”

He gently dragged the stick with clustering ants over a few feet away from the original spot. Luke observed the ants wander around seemingly disoriented for a bit, before forming a line to march back over to their anthill. “They know how to find their home!”

Persistence and attention span

Children differ in their ability to focus attention and persist on relevant tasks. Open-ended, engaging activities in line with interests and learning styles best promote focused investigation.

For example – Anna is a 4-year old girl with a lot of energy and curiosity. She easily loses interest when activities require sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time. When her teacher leads activities involving worksheets or listening to long stories, Anna starts fidgeting, looking around, or attempting to chat with peers.

Her teacher observes that Anna becomes deeply focused when playing in the block center. Over multiple days, Anna works diligently on an elaborate castle, carefully selecting the right-sized blocks, and building multiple towers.

In contrast to the paper-pencil tasks Anna abandoned within 5 minutes, self-directed and creative activities like block building help channel her curiosity, energy, and interests into focused investigation.

Her teacher then incorporates the Literacy or numeracy aspect of the teaching by sticking letters or numbers on the blocks she likes to work on, so she can absorb what she needs to learn in a fun way.

Having autonomy over the experience and using her hands seem to enable Anna’s persistence, attention span, and task completion abilities that emerge inconsistently otherwise.

By providing more time, space and materials for these absorbing activities tailored to Anna’s open-ended style of learning, her teacher nurtures investigation, self-direction and other learning to learn skills.

Confidence and willingness to take risks

Environments, where mistakes are embraced rather than punished, encourage healthy trial-and-error. At ages where self-concept emerges, positive reinforcement builds confidence to venture answers.

Positive reinforcement looks like:

Praising effort over outcomes “I see you worked so hard to build that tower even when it kept falling. Good work!”

Embrace mistakes warmly “Oh that didn’t work as planned! Why do you think it fell over this time? What could we try differently?”

Encourage peer support Build a collaborative classroom culture where children coach and help each other. “If you work together you can build a bigger tower.”

Be patient with thinking time Rather than expecting instant answers, give children ample processing time, ask open ended questions, and restate ideas to validate thinking.

Provide non-judgmental feedback Steer away from evaluative language – rather than “wrong approach”, reframe as “let’s test this another way!”

Spotlight risk taskers Occasionally highlight children who showcase persistence amid challenge – this shows all efforts, even those not immediately successful, get recognized.

Discover learning style inclinations early Children have unique needs – help tactile learners embrace manipulatives, and let highly social learners co-investigate.

The goal is to make the classroom a safe launchpad for venturing ideas, testing theories, and making adjustments. This encourages both autonomous pursuits as well as group cooperation and communication. This mindset fuels engagement, resilience, and accelerated learning.

Executive Function

Foundational cognitive self-regulation skills are needed to set goals, control impulses, retain and apply new information. Play and integrated learning activities exercise these “learning to learn” abilities.

You can facilitate "Learning To Learn" abilities by:

Talking through your own thinking process step-by-step as you complete tasks. Use think-aloud to externalize problem-solving, planning, and organizing thoughts.

Providing hands-on supports like visual schedules, checklists, and timers to guide children through the steps of exercising goal-setting, working memory, and self-control. Then gradually remove the supports.

Implementing learning centers – Areas for specific types of play promote focus, resisting distraction, and impulse control to follow designated rules. Rotate materials to sustain novelty.

Offering choices – Within defined parameters, choices boost goal-oriented behavior and decision-making skills. Adapt choices based on the child’s capabilities. Choosing boards in learning areas encourages independent and confident thinkers.

Encouraging self-talk – Foster verbal mediation skills through modeling and questioning – “What is your next step?” “How will you stay focused?

Recognizing diligence towards learning goals. The process is more important than outcomes when building executive function.

Revisit instructions, asking children to restate key info in their own words. Repeating back taps working memory & attention. Planning and recall time before and after activities will strengthen the memory of the learning that was done.

What I love about active learning is that it provides opportunities – directly and subtly embedded into activities and exercises mental flexibility and self-regulation skills and overall executive function skills which are essential in the foundation stage of any kinder learner.

play based learning , active learning

Cooperative Disposition

From parallel play to collaborative experiences, young children build skills in communication, compromise, and negotiations – laying the groundwork for cooperative inquiry.

Verbally work through conflicts, Setting expectations but allowing choices. Engineering natural opportunities for peer collaboration through activities needing multiple players. Use language emphasizing community over individual “Our classroom” “Let’s work together” “Our friends”

Facilitate peer discussions allowing children space to listen to each other respectfully. Praise not just outcomes but efforts towards teamwork. Provide opportunities for differentiation and interdependence.

children going through expectations and making choices

In conclusion cultivating positive approaches to learning across these dimensions is essential for success in any early learning stages as well as enabling lifelong learning and adaptive skills.

Approaches to learning sets the stage for future academic and lifelong success. An effective early childhood environment nurtures curiosity, persistence, cooperation, and other learning-how-to learn proficiencies via developmentally appropriate hands-on, integrated activities tailored to children’s innate hunger for exploration, discovery and collaborative inquiry. Assessment and instruction should focus not just on content objectives but also process goals that strengthen burgeoning work habits.

Equipping children with essential cognitive strategies and motivational mindsets ensures learning readiness now and learning agility for the future. I have always and will always believe in the impact and positive influence that active learning has on young children.

What learning method are you passionate about? I would love to hear from you.

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